The Last Letter from the Front

Grandma knew the look of “soldiers mail.” Grandpa was required to write the term in the upper corner of every envelope mailed from France to guarantee free postage.

last envelope

She recognized all the information that covered the front: her name and address, and his, the censor’s stamp, and the postmark: here, November 12, U.S. Army Post Office M.P.E.S. 1918. APO 761. (1)

The postmark confirmed that the letter began its journey on the day after the Armistice. She certainly received it weeks after the end of fighting, and during a time, I presume, Americans were celebrating the end of the war.

She may have looked twice at sender’s box, AM.EX.F. (American Expeditionary Forces), Knights of Columbus (a Catholic charity), only because most of his letters were sent on stationery provided by the Y.M.C.A. Grandpa surely took whatever free paper was offered.

She opened the envelope across the bottom edge, using a long, pointed letter opener that neatly sliced through a single edge without damaging the envelope or the letter enclosed. (I remember watching her open letters with such a tool.) When she pulled out the letter, its two pages neatly folded, she may have first seen Grandpa’s signature.

last envelope, back with letter

If I had seen his signature, I would have smiled. He was still alive. He was still writing letters. But I don’t know what Grandma thought. Maybe she was relieved to hear from him, or annoyed that he was writing so infrequently now (as compared to the daily writing they’d established over the months of his service). Grandpa hints at her frustration in this letter.

I wonder if she calculated the transit time, figuring the weeks it had taken this letter, after Grandpa wrote it, to find its way to the censor, to the military post office, and then onto a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean, before traveling by train from New York to Missouri. Maybe she did. She was clever and always good with numbers.

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“October 31, 1918. Some place in France. My Dear Inis,” the letter began. So, he had written this well before the November 12 postmark, she might have thought, before the Armistice, and before he was safe from enemy fire.

I doubt, as she held the letter and slowly made her way through the contents, that she could have known that–in real time, at the very moment she was reading his letter–Grandpa was lying in a hospital bed in France, badly injured on November 3, only a few days after he wrote her. The news of his injury only made its way to his next of kin—his parents—in December.

“Mr. And Mrs. Alderson received word the first of the week,” the King City Chronicle noted on December 13, 1918, “that their son, Tom, was seriously wounded, Nov. 3rd. All hope they will yet get different word and all extend sympathy to Mr. And Mrs. Alderson.” (2)

Grandma probably read this letter–by my count the 175th one he sent during his service and the last one from the front–around Thanksgiving, before anyone knew he’d been hurt. Her family, gathered at their holiday table, no doubt prayed for his safe return. He would return, but not for months, and not in the same condition he’d known before he was called to serve his country, a solemn duty that changed his life, and hers.

Notes

(1) M.P.E.S. stood for Military Postal Express Service. It was set up in 1918, to expedite military mail sent from overseas. APO, Army Post Office, the number referring to a collection location (which I couldn’t identify), typically the spot near the battle area where the mail could be put safely on a train.

(2) King City Chronicle, 13 December 1918, p4.

October 31, 1918

Some place in France

My Dear Inis,

The orders are for us today to write to no one except our people, but as I written home a few days ago I am going to write you.

I know you think I have neglected you some and I have, but you don’t know what we have been doing since I written you last. We had had some hard warfare.

You know we all write home and send the bright side although you know we are not having a snap. I am daily looking for the time that I can be with you and tell you all.

I have been with Harry Carder several times in the last week. He is only stationed about a mile from where we are now. He is just the same as ever and is a good officer. He brought me back to my co [company] in his car a couple of times. He also took supper with us one night.

This is a beautiful day and we are sure enjoying it as we are just sleeping out on the ground with our blankets over us. We have been on the front going on four months and I think our Division deserves a rest as they have done some hard work.

I got a letter from you last night also one from Mother and a couple of Chronicles. They came in fine as I was sick all day, but am feeling a little better today.

I don’t know whether you will be able to read this or not. I am sitting on the ground with the paper on my Gas mask.

Several of our boys are back from the Hospital. Carl Ketchum, Rube Dunlap and several more you would not know.

I supose you have got the card designating you are allowed to send a Xmas present to a Soldier in France.

Xmas coupon

(He sent the coupon on October 26. Given the long time mail took, weeks, I wonder if it arrived in time to meet the November 20 deadline. Clearly, the coupon wasn’t used.)

Don’t think I am [word unclear] you for it as every boy sent one and I sent it to you instead of the folks and I thought you might send together and I don’t want you to send a great deal as we can’t carry it only something we can eat. Ha Ha.

Ferris Keys has gone to the officers training camp. I haven’t heard from him yet. Also four have gone from our co. I hear from Marshall [his brother] real often. He is well pleased with Denver.

You mentioned in one of your letters that you felt like you were not doing enough to help win the war. I think you are and if you are not I am doing enough for us both, so just rest easy.

Well we were told not to write big letters so I better quit. So I do so by sending plenty of love x kisses

Tom.

Thos. W. Alderson

Co C 356 Inf

American E. F.

Via N.Y.

10:31:18 (1)10:31:19 (2)10:31:18 (3)10:31:18 (4)

Write Home! That’s an Order!

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Grandma kept the letters from Grandpa in a shoe box. Envelopes marked with “Soldiers Mail” (upper right corner) identified mail from France, which didn’t require postage. Photo (c) Charlene Reichert.

The army encouraged soldiers to write letters, lots of letters. Staying in touch with folks back home would keep up a soldier’s morale, the argument went, and also maintain the public’s support for the war. Over the summer of 1918, as more and more soldiers were deployed to the Western Front—including my grandfather, newspapers across the country ran General Pershing’s official order to “write home often.” The New York Times ran the full order, a portion of which read:

Duty to one’s country does not end on the parade ground, nor even on the battlefield, but consists in doing everything in one’s power to help win the war. To write home frequently and regularly, to keep in constant touch with family and friends, is one of the soldier’s most important duties. (1)

Service organizations like the Y.M.C.A., Red Cross, and the Knights of Columbus, provided writing paper and envelopes to soldiers, both in military training camps and also overseas. Postage was waived for all mail sent from Europe.

The army provided rules and advice. For example, once they boarded a ship, soldiers could not mention specific details of location or troop movement, the numbers of troops, and, later, the numbers of wounded and killed in battle. That information, if it fell into the hands of the enemy, posed a danger.

Of course, for this danger to present itself, soldiers had to carry letters with them. And they did. Grandpa once apologized for not answering some of Grandma’s questions, explaining that he’d lost her letters on the front.

Friends and family also received advice. Trench and Camp, the weekly military newspaper, often ran advice columns for the public. In one, the author recommended keeping letters “hopeful” as a way to counteract a prevailing notion that most soldiers would die.

Do not get the idea that our boys are “going over the top” to die. Ninety-three in each hundred will return. Do not let the “Well, if I do not see you again, good luck and God bless you” farewell send a man off with a stone where his heart should be. Keep this idea out of your letters and their thoughts. To be victorious they must be hopeful. (2)

Keep the letters newsy–with stories about neighbors and happenings at home. This would help remind the soldier of the life awaiting him after the war.

Don’t use letters to explore any misgivings about the war. Criticism was seen as unpatriotic and, in extreme cases, illegal. The federal government, under the direction of President Wilson, enforced the 1917 Espionage Act and 1918 Sedition Act against pacifists and dissenters, or anyone it deemed disloyal. (3) These acts were seen at the time as violations against free speech, and parts (though not all) of these acts were repealed after the war. But their role in the national effort to keep things positive, maintain high morale, and support the war that would end all wars . . . informed the public conversation, including private letters written to and by soldiers. Grandpa sometimes mentioned that he was supposed to keep his letters cheery, and in one poignant example from the battlefield, he remarked,

You know we all write home and send the bright side, although you know we are not having a snap. (from a letter I’ll post in October)

The War Department stepped in with restrictions on second-class mail, especially packages. Cargo ships were needed for military equipment and personnel exclusively, not gift packages from home. Also, these packages slowed down the delivery in France of first-class mail–those all important letters.

TC Puzzle Letter

Published in Trench and Camp, January 5, 1918. Courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

“A letter is a gift that is always timely and never in the way,” appeared in another column published in Trench and Camp. The letters need not be fancy, the author noted. “Literary quality isn’t the thing most needful in them, of course.” (4)

This may explain the quality of a poem Grandpa included in the letter I’m posting below, which he wrote in early September. The poem had been written (or copied?) by a girl “back home” and sent to one of Grandpa’s buddies. The rhyming is forced at times, but the ending makes it worth the read!

(1) “Asks Men to Write Home.” New York Times. 9 June 1918: 9.

(2) “Rules and Suggestions Regarding Soldier Mail.” Trench and Camp. 12 January 1918: 3.

(3) For full discussion, see Patricia O’Toole, The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made. New York, 2018: 290-301.

(4) “Home Letters Revivify Soldiers and Play Important Part in War.” Trench and Camp. 23 March 1918: 3.

 

Sept 1, 1918

Some place in France.

My Dear Girl.

Almost a week has past since I written you although I have thought of you quite a bit of time. I got three letters from you last night, one from Marshall and one from Mother. So you see I was pretty well fixed for a while. One of yours had the pictures of your dogs Jack loving Ruby and the others and a few days ago I got the other one with the pictures. They were sure gladly received even if they were not extra good. So keep the good work going as the letters are the best thing we get over here.

I haven’t been working so hard for the last week as we have been in reserve. But I think we will go up again soon. I am feeling fine. The weather has begun to get cooler here already. I sure am scringing* for this winter as France is a great deal cooler than Mo. But every thing looks bright so far. We have had four men promoted for their bravery already. Rube Dunlap was made Sergeant, for one, and Clyde Findly made Corporal and a couple more. This event of bravery was while the bunch was under the heavy artillery fire I told you in the other letter. So I guess Mr. Moulton was right when he said there was some in this bunch that could give good account of himself.

Ferris showed me a letter with some pictures he received the other day from Loretta. They composed of her and another girl dressed in bathing suits so you know they were keen. Well My Dear there isn’t much I can tell you only that I am sending with this an extra amount of love and kisses being as it is Sunday afternoon.

So I close

Lovingly Tom.

Thos. W. Alderson

Co. C. 356 Inf

American E. F.

P.S. Below is a couple verses of poetry that a boy in our co received from his girl in Omaha Neb.

*scringing is likely cringing, as in dreading the upcoming winter. In 19th-century American folk language, scringe was often used for cringe.

 

To My Soldier Boy

I’m feeling pretty worried over all the things I hear.

Of the Shrapnel and the canons that are roaring around you Dear.

Of the Zeppelins and aeroplanes and the sneaky (?) submarines.

But the worst of all the things I fear

That nearly turns me green

Is the fear of all the damsels you’ll be meeting over there

The Parisiennes and the Belgian Maids with fascinating hair.

So be loyal Honey, don’t forsake the girl back home.

No matter how they smile on you,

Don’t let your fancy roam,

For the French girls are so pretty and the nurses are so kind

But do not be a traitor to the girl you left behind.

 

I know that you are Loyal to the old Red White and blue.

And I hope you’ll be loyal to your little girl, too.

Against the Hun’s they spell with “U” you’ll hold your own I know.

But I fear you may be ambushed by the huns they spell with “O.”

Stand guard against temptations

Don’t surrender to their charms.

And wait until you get back home before presenting arms.

Leave the French Girls to the French men and the Nurses for the Doc’s.

And the soldier in Kaki for the girl who knits his socks.

Tho the French girls may be pretty and the nurses may be kind

Oh do not be a traitor to the girl you left behind.

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